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Does Exercise Make Us Smarter?

From today’s NY Times, the Well, comes more evidence that exercise is good for your brain as well as your heart and gut. (Although, not sure how you explain Stephen Hawking).

But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that fitness is what made us able to grow big brains and eventually send men to the moon.  In an article from 2004,  with a title that makes the inner teenager in all of giggle: “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo,” a couple of scientists posited that early man survived by becoming endurance athletes, able to bring down swifter prey through sheer doggedness, jogging and plodding along behind them until the animals dropped.

Now, more research is suggesting that this same endurance led to our ridiculously large brains, which anthropologists suggest is three times larger than would be expected.

Working Out
Working Out (Photo credit: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

The theory goes like this: Man had to run to catch prey and run from being prey, and this produced “younglings” with more physical endurance. In turn, this produced a high level of a hormone called BDNF, which promotes tissue growth, including brain tissue growth.

So, if physical activity led to bigger better brains, does daily exercise today lead to better brain health within one’s lifespan?

Here’s where the science is less solid.

While recent studies have shown that regular exercise leads to more robust mental abilities, this fact remains largely unprovable.

But if exercise helped us get this far as a species, it stands to reason it’s a worthwhile endeavor.


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